People Like You
Contemporary Figures of Personalisation

People Like You

Personalisation is changing many parts of contemporary life, from the way we shop and communicate to the kinds of public services we access. We are told that purchases, experiences, treatments, and interactions can all be customised to an optimum.

As a group of scientists, sociologists, anthropologists and artists, we are exploring how personalisation actually works. What are optimum outcomes? Do personalising practices have unintended consequences?

We argue that personalisation is not restricted to a single area of life and that personalised practices develop, interact and move between different sites and times. The project is split into four areas: personalised medicine and care; data science; digital cultures; interactive arts practices.

People Like You: Contemporary Figures of Personalisation is funded by a Collaborative Award in the Medical Humanities and Social Sciences from The Wellcome Trust, 2018–2022.


What do pictures want?

Sophie Day

20 December 2019

Sophie Day

20 December 2019

What do pictures want?

WJT Mitchell’s title to his 2004 book is ‘What do pictures want?’  Why do we behave as if pictures are alive, possessing the power to influence us, to demand things from us, to persuade us, seduce us, or even lead us astray?

Steve McQueen’s Year 3 (2019) involved mass participation and includes 3,128 photographs, two-thirds of London’s 7-year olds. Class pictures of these 76,000 children are on display in Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries until May 2020, but available slots for school visits are fully booked.  These are classic school photographs –  wide angle, everyone visible, most children in uniform, sitting and standing in three or four rows by virtue of the traditional low benches, and the children framed by familiar accoutrements of school gyms and halls. The images are arranged in blocks of colour from top to bottom of the gallery walls.

Year 3 at Duveen Galleries, Tate Britain (photograph, Sophie Day)

In addition to the gallery display, McQueen was committed to exhibiting class photographs on billboards on older, mid-20th century shop gables and houses in London’s further reaches as well as prime advertising spots in the centre. The London arts organisation, Artangel worked with PosterScope and leading companies for outdoors locating and marketing, to site billboards across the city but outside the borough in which the photograph had been taken. At least one billboard should be sited so that it was easy to visit from the relevant school. Cressida Day from Artangel told me about the logistics of placing billboards across London for two weeks in November 2019, ahead of the exhibition at Tate Britain. Fifty-three schools appeared on around 600 sites which were put up with paper and paste in 48 sheets for one billboard, 96 for a double space. Such spots are hard to find in central London where most advertising is now digital. Only digital, in portrait format, is available in some boroughs such as the City of London while paper and paste offers the necessary landscape format. Pasting up is a dying art and takes a year to learn.

Year 3 billboard by A12 extension, east London (photograph, Sophie Day)

I was interested in this vision of a mass public seeing itself. Billboards and exhibition evoked repeated hopes for London’s future, as Harry Thorne found in reviews from The Guardian, The Times, Arts & Collections, ArtDaily and The Telegraph.[2] One teacher expressed delight about the public display of pictures of children she taught with special needs. They are mostly invisible, she said, and are not part of publics. Of course, they want (to be on) a billboard.  No one ever sees them. Comments on twitter’s #Year3Project read, “The … is so cool! We’re used to numerical data on populations, but here you can SEE a cross-section of London, …” and, from a participating school,  “… we are the art work. We are the audience.”

Apparently less than half of London’s schools now take year pictures and the photographs that are still taken do not follow past practice, replacing images of children in serried rows with movement and activity. A web search for school photo will come up at once, however, with an offer to find your old class picture for you. You might then imagine or trace your cohort forward in time from the recent past.[3]  I wonder if the evocation of collectives on billboards through practices that used to be common jolted spectators into asking about London’s future. The sense of collective, including year groups, was orchestrated by public institutions through widely shared events that moved you predictably from school photos, through education in general, and into work placements, health checks, jobs ….  As public institutions themselves are severely trimmed and as their role or value is celebrated less often through school photos and equivalent markers, what sort of London will appear with these Year 3 children? How will it be recognised and by whom?

Measures were adopted to safeguard the audience and portraits, but different kinds of public emerge in relation to digital media. Advertisers follow voluntary restrictions within a 100-metre area around schools and refrain from advertising alcohol, e-cigarettes, fast food, sweets, gambling or lotteries. The display of Year 3 images on billboards followed the same guidelines. In addition, there were to be no adverts from these sectors next to Year 3 portraits.[4] In consequence, more billboards ended up in the underground network than expected, where TFL’s policy on advertising is more stringent.

Were the audience to these pictures in need of safeguards? Perhaps Year 3 pictures would affect their surroundings and so the companies placing the billboards as advised by NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) officers, wanted to create child-friendly environments. If ‘the artwork was also the audience’ (above), would an audience of young people would come to look at the billboards in person, where they would be protected by these guidelines? But pictures of billboards that then circulate on social media (and here, for instance) cannot take these protective measures with them. What do these images want from their audiences? To be seen from what distance, in what context? How do these images and their audiences differ? If the images show ‘People Like You’, do they – in turn – like you?

Geotargeting and geofencing are increasingly important to out-of-home advertising. You may be looking at a billboard that is looking at you.  Data such as gender, age, race, income, interests, and purchasing habits can be used by companies to trigger an advertisement directly or to show ads in the future that they will have learned are appropriate, perhaps to Year 3 parents at school pick-up time and  teenagers in the evening. Once your phone has been detected, an advertising company can follow up with related ads in your social media feed or commercials at home on your smart TV.[5]  Artangel also used geolocating technology to target ads via Facebook or Instagram and direct people to Artangel’s website to find out more about the project.

Roy Wagner’s comment on the early Wittgenstein provides an appropriate gloss. Rather than picturing facts to ourselves, Wagner suggested, “Facts picture us to themselves” (The Logic of Invention, 2018).



[1] With thanks to Cressida Day, Celia Lury and Will Viney

[2] Harry Thorne, What All the Reviews of Steve McQueen’s ‘Year 3’ at Tate Britain Have Got Wrong. Frieze, 15 November 2019 at

[3] The early days of Facebook would be remembered by some parents of Year 3 pupils: TheFacebook, as it was then called, made an online version of Harvard’s paper registers which were handed to all new students. They had photos of your classmates alongside their university ‘addresses’ or ‘houses’.

[4] 38 billboards were never put up in consequence. In a digital equivalent, where you cycle through six images in a minute, you would have had to place six school photos one after the other to avoid neighbouring advertising.

[5] See Thomas Germain, Digital Billboards Are Tracking You. And They Really, Really Want You to See Their Ads. CR Consumer Reports, November 20, 2019 at




Panel Event

16 December, 2019 09:30 – 18:00

Programme Booklet

Figurations: Persons In/Out of Data Conference

We’re drowning in an ocean of data, or so the saying goes. Data’s “big”: there’s not only lots of it, but its volume has allowed for the development of new, large-scale processing techniques. Our relationship with governments, medical organisations, technology companies, the education sector, and so on are increasingly informed by the data we overtly or inadvertently provide when we use particular services. The proverbial data deluge is large-scale—but it’s also personal. Data promises to personalise services to better meet our individual needs. Data is often construed as a threat to our person(s). Not every person predicated by data is predicted the same. The intersection between data and person isn’t fixed: it has to be figured.

This conference brings together an interdisciplinary group of researchers to explore how the person—or persons, plural—are figured in/out of data. Figuration might encompass any or all of processes of representation, calculation, analogisation, prediction, and conceptualisation. It cuts across multiple scales, epistemological modes, and disciplinary areas of enquiry. It tackles problems that cross into disparate disciplines. Our proposition is that it can help us think and study our increasingly datified present.

What methodological, conceptual, and/or empirical potential do ‘figurations’ offer to researchers working at the intersection of the person and data today? Over two days, more than 50 presenters and 4 keynote speakers will address how the ‘figure’ and its variants—figuration, figuring, to figure, and so on—is being developed and used in disciplines including the medical humanities, the social sciences, media studies, art history, literary studies, philosophy, science and technology studies, urban studies, and geography.

To register, please follow this link.


Confirmed keynotes:

Professor Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Simon Fraser University

Professor Jane Elliot, University of Exeter

Professor John Frow, The University of Sydney

Professor AbdouMaliq Simone, The University of Sheffield


Where and when:

9.30am – 6pm, Monday 16 and Tuesday 17 December, 2019

Professor Stuart Hall Building, Goldsmiths, University of London, 8 Lewisham Way SE14 6NW

The conference programme will be available shortly. Keynote addresses will take place at 10am and 5pm each day.

Registration is free. Lunch and coffee will be provided for attendees. When registering, we ask that you please indicate if you’re only attending one of the two days or, if your plans change, that you cancel your registration as soon as possible – we don’t like wasting food!


Figurations is organised as part of the ‘People Like You: Contemporary Figures of Personalisation’ Project, which is funded by a Wellcome Trust Collaborative Award (205456/Z/16/Z). It is organised by Prof. Celia Lury and Dr. Scott Wark from the University of Warwick’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, in collaboration with PLY researchers from Goldsmiths, University of London and Imperial College.


To register, please follow this link. If you have any questions about the conference programme, please email Scott Wark: If you have any questions about Goldsmiths, including questions about access requirements, please email our project administrator, Yael Gerson:


Day S., Lury, C.

Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life, 2016

This chapter argues that tracking involves an increasingly significant and diverse set of techniques in relation to the ongoing transformation of relations between observer and observed, and between observers. These developments include not only the proliferation of individual sensing devices associated with a growing variety of platforms, but also the emergence of new data infrastructures that pool, scale, and link data in ways that promote their repurposing. By means of examples ranging from genes and currencies to social media and the disappearance of an airplane, it is suggested that practices of tracking are creating new public-private distinctions in the dynamic problem space resulting from the analytics that pattern these data. These new distinctions are linked to changing forms of personhood and changing relations between market and state, economy and society.

Day, Sophie E. and Lury, Celia. 2016. Biosensing: Tracking Persons. In: Dawn Nafus, ed. Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, pp. 43-66. ISBN 978-0-262-52875-7 [Book Section]